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Districts get to decide if face masks will be required in Iowa schools

New guidance from the Iowa Board of Education recommended not requiring masks in school.

DES MOINES, Iowa — School districts are in a race against the clock trying to complete Return to Learn plans ahead the state's July 1 deadline.

New guidance from the Iowa Board of Education recommended not requiring masks in school. The decision is left up to local school districts. 

"I've been in the educational business for over 40 years, and this is a whole new arena,” Colo-NESCO Community Schools Superintendent Jim Walker said.

Walker said dealing with COVID-19 has been tough because there are a lot of unknowns still.

"We don't have any control over a lot of this,” Walker said. “A snowstorm is gone in a couple of days and you got control of getting things back going."

Face masks will likely not be required at Colo-NESCO, where just under 400 students are enrolled, but students can wear them if they choose.

"Referring to elderly, grandparents and stuff that they may go and visit, or maybe that's the daycare provider, it would be best that they do have a mask on since they are going back to someone that may have some health issues."

Over in Marshalltown, school officials overseeing the roughly 5,000 students said face masks may be required.

"I think we will plan to require and or highly recommend that all students as well as staff are wearing some form of face mask or protective face device,” Marshalltown Community School District Superintendent Theron Schutte said. "We've yet to determine what that is."

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Both superintendents agree one of the biggest areas they’re struggling with is transportation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends one student seated in every other row on school buses, which would wind up costing districts a lot of extra money.

"We're doing some further investigating and terms of possibly staggering our bus schedule so we can accommodate more bus runs. It's going to increase costs as far as staffing goes," Schutte said.

"We would probably not be looking at alternating seats and trying to deal with that social distancing because of the cost," Walker said.  

In a typical year, Colo-NESCO's school transportation budget is just under $400,000 with Marshalltown at just under $2.2 million.

"Students and educators deserve our protection and the Department of Education and Department of Public Health have done a disservice in releasing deficient guidance," the Iowa State Education Association said in a statement. "They must do better."

The Iowa Department of Education issued the following statement Friday: 

The Iowa Department of Education, in collaboration with the Iowa Department of Public Health, has developed reopening guidance that takes into account 327 school districts and 119 accredited nonpublic schools, all with different circumstances; and the individual needs of more than 550,000 schoolchildren as well as teachers and other school staff in our state.

The Department of Education acknowledges that the reopening guidance released Thursday, June 25, needs further clarification, and will release additional information in the near future as well as health and safety measures for teachers to use to assist students and families. An example of the health and safety work we have already delivered for schools to use in their Return-to-Learn work is available here. This is a sample of materials available to schools that helps teach students about mitigation strategies such as handwashing and distancing from others.

We recognize that face masks can be an important tool to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The Department of Education and the Iowa Department of Public Health do not recommend that districts and nonpublic schools require masks for all students and staff because of the considerable implications for such a policy. However, schools may decide to require masks based on their individual situations and data.

The Iowa Department of Education will continue to rely on the expertise of the Iowa Department of Public Health to support schools and communities during this reopening process to ensure all students and families can return to school safely. 

For the latest COVID-19 news, text FACTS to 515-457-1026.

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